Over the past several years, while fishing on the Little Elkhart River, I have hooked and unsuccessfully fought "The Fish". The one that would better 22" and secure my membership in the exclusive TroutClub 22. A few years ago, I hooked a monster rainbow not two days in a row, but a whopping four days in a row. After my fourth fail, Miller requested I give the beast a break for all our sakes.
I didn't fish that section for the rest of the year.
Big fish have never really been a goal of mine. I try to approach every outing with the same goals:
1. Catch a trout. I don't care if it's 4" long... I just want to get one to hand.
2. Catch a lot of trout. This is subjective. For me, it means double digits. Double digits is a good day no matter where I fish. On the Little E, It's awesome.
3. Catch a big trout. If I manage to accomplish goals 1 and 2, I'm going for it! Log jams, deep runs, tight structure... suicide missions. Prepared to lose ever fly in the box to get down to the big boys.
I'm often asked "How do you know where the big fish are??"
To which I reply "I fish."
One Saturday in early February the weather report was favorable for a few hours of fishing. The temps were to reach the mid forties and the river was running surprising clear. I spent the morning watching the sons of two friends of mine compete in the Indiana State Wrestling Reginal Finals. Little did I know that I would be in my own tussle in just a few hours.
I believe the best time to fish a winter warmup is at the "heat" of the day. On this Saturday the weather was predicted to be the warmest between 2:30 - 3:30. My wife and I had plans to hit the casino in New Buffalo for dinner and so she could donate some birthday money to the one armed bandits. We were hoping to leave at 4:00PM.
By the time I changed, grabbed my gear and "armored up", I was on the river at 1:00PM. I was very familiar with the beat I had chosen to fish, and confident in my rig. The Chicken Bone had been producing all over the system, Beach had a banner outing the day before fishing the white nymph, that I had chosen for my anchor fly. For the point fly, I made several changes throughout the first hour and a half. No luck.
I made my way upstream to the winter holes that lead me to choose this section of the Little Elkhart River. My confidence in my rig was beginning to fade, but I stuck with the Chicken Bone and decided to change my point fly to the Benton Bugger, in a size 12. Small streamers can net big fish in cold weather. Has I approached what I hoped to be the first of four perfectly suitable winter holes, I had a sense that I wasn't alone. After checking my flank I saw a wake coming directly downstream to my left. It was a beaver and as soon as he saw me he dove directly into the run with a flip of his tail. I slowly moved upstream with more stealth than I would normally deploy, and once again startled the beaver, who also startled me being only a few feet in front of me.
Deciding that it may be best to reevaluate my path, I headed down stream until I could cross the stream safely and walked the shore around the hole and entered the river above the uprooted tree that created the beautiful run several years ago. I fished the front side of the log methodically, letting the flies swing the underside hoping to see a flash. No such luck. I was interrupted by a text from my wife. I checked the time and it was just after 3:00PM. I was sure she was inquiring on when I might be home, but instead wondered if I would be upset if we made the casino run at another time. She had worked all day and needed a nap. I quickly answer with a "NO! Not at all!", told her to get some rest and I would be home later! I hate fishing on a schedule and my schedule had just cleared. Now time to catch a fish.
I moved back into position and cast my flies into the wall created by the tree's roots and raised the rod tip as the flies disappeared into the darkness. I was now fishing on the other side of the log, downstream. A risky position, but one that has served me well in the past.
The line stopped at the precise time I felt resistance. As I applied pressure the line held tight for a few seconds. A snag? But wait! My rod tip bounced twice and the line shot downstream as my reel hissed.
My heart went into my throat.
I managed to keep tension and turn my nemesis away from the snagfest that lined the shoreline. Carefully I kept tension as I slowly slid over the log and tried to remember the exact position of the sand bar that splits the massive hole. Meanwhile the fish charged back and headed for the root wall, another potential trouble spot. I was having nothing of it! My 10' four weight Orvis Helios 2 performed to perfection. I saw a flash of honey gold has the fish surfaced for the first time. "This is it!" I whispered to myself as I reached for my net.
It was at the moment I realized I had taken the net off my pack and left it in the trout wagon. NOT AGAIN!! I wore the fish down and when the beast turned on it side I grabbed him by the tail with my left hand and, after throwing my rod toward shore, scooped him up with my right had. He was beautiful. He just sat there in my hands as I moved toward the opposite riverbank. After a few pics, I got the measurement, and slowly cradled him until with a flip of his tail he cruised upstream, back to his home.
I gathered my rod and sat on a log while I stared at the pictures. I was still in shock. But I headed upstream and caught two more Browns. A 15" and a 18". On what was to be my last cast of the day, I hit a branch and snapped the tip off my rod. Even that awful noise couldn't damper my spirt.
When I reached my truck, the phone calls, texts, Instagram and Facebook messages began. I started with Beach. We laughed and traded notes. I could tell he was almost has happy as I was. Same with Miller and The Rat. I took my bride to the local watering hole for dinner and bored her for the rest of the evening reenacting the ordeal with soundeffects. She put up with it.
The next day I came to an uncomfortable realization. I had just caught "The Fish". As in the fish of my life. It was over. Done. I may never again achieve this level of Flyfishing greatness.
What would I now strive for? I wished I had more time with my trout... Get to know him... Maybe introduce him to my friends. It crossed my mind that this was the biggest fish I had heard of being caught in the Lil E. Especially a Brown.
Thankfully, those thoughts were dashed the next day when Beach sent me a picture and newspaper article from the 60's with a picture of Beach, who was a kid, and his dad holding a huge brown trout caught out of the Little Elkhart River outside of Middlebury. A state record at the time at 25.5".
Alas! There are bigger ones out there! And I will be out there in hopes of improving habitat and conservation to ensure that we continue to have big, strong trout, as we have for years.
However, my goal we remain the same the next time I venture out... To simply catch a trout.